One of the strange things about being a pioneer is that you don’t know you’re doing it. This time ten years ago, I was nervously awaiting the release of Crap Towns and to me it seemed like just another book. It was one that was obviously important to me personally, and one that I hoped would make people laugh and strike a few chords and possibly give a few corrupt local politicians and hopeless MPs a kick up the backside. But that was about as far as my thinking went. It was only after the book came out, and fortunately did quite well, that people started telling me I had helped develop a couple of new trends.
The first of these was the mercifully short-lived shitegeist. Lots of books with scatalogical references in the titles came out over the next few years and I know they weren’t very good and I can only apologise. If it makes you feel at all better, I didn’t see a penny from any of them.
The second development was possibly more interesting. Crap Towns began its life on the web and was largely made up of contributions from the Great British public, harvested in by email. There were probably other books before it developed by similar means, but Crap Towns is now often cited as the earliest to fruitfully gather wisdom from the giant online crowd.
The clever trick here (as people now relate it, although at the time it was really just a lucky accident) is that the means of producing the book also became an effective way of marketing it. Crap Towns turned into one of those things that people passed around to each other at work, contributed to in down time, laughed at when they should probably have been doing what they were paid to do, like talking up the housing bubble, stealing money from pension funds, buying stakes in dubious sub-prime property deals or whatever else it was that people did in offices before the great crash. Anyway, my point is that Crap Towns was already pretty well known before the book landed in shops and that helped a great deal. That success in turn may well have encouraged a few other web-based book projects to get off the ground. I know. I’m sorry.
The other strange thing about being a pioneer is that by the time you realise you might have done something original, it’s all in the past. Here I am telling you about web-based book projects and they seem entirely like old news. I’m especially aware of that fact because this year I’ve been putting together the 10th anniversary edition of Crap Towns. The trusty model of web-based contributions has been fantastic for gathering material and causing a bit of a stir, but it’s really only contributed a small proportion of the material for the book and its marketing. Ten years ago, at this stage, with the book all but completed, I had little to do but wait until launch. This year, as my publisher keeps reminding me, my work is only just beginning. It’s now that I have to start firing up the @craptowns twitter account, attracting fans on facebook, making little films on nifty apps like videofyme, and doing all the other things you have to do to get your voice heard on Web 2.0. My tweetdeck looks like something from a SF film, I’m forever hunting for funny stories and pictures to put up on facebook, everywhere I go I wonder if I can make a little video, send a tweet, do something to attract and impress new followers. It’s turning into a full-time job.
I don’t mind. In fact, I find it gloriously entertaining and a great way of reaching more people than ever - and, better still, of hearing back from them. But it also feels sometimes like I’m playing catch-up. A lovely woman at Quercus even invited me in for a lesson in social media a few weeks ago. That too was fun. But it also made me understand that if I ever was a pioneer, I’m definitely not one now.
PS I’d love to tell you more about the towns that are going to feature in the final version of Crap Towns Returns, but I can’t. The list is strictly embargoed. Some things don’t change!
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